CategorySackville Amy

Fiction Uncovered 2013

Now in its third year, Fiction Uncovered is an initiative aimed at bringing the work of established (but not necessarily widely-known) British writers to the attention of a wider audience. A changing panel of judges curates a list of eight books published in the previous twelve months: this year’s panel  comprised the writer Louise Doughty (chair of judges); dovegreyreader herself, Lynne Hatwell; Sandy Mahal of the Reading Agency charity; and the writer Courttia Newland.

I have written for Fiction Uncovered occasionally, and this year was lucky enough to have a preview of the list (which is announced today), so I’ve been catching up on the titles I’d not previously read. Here are the judges’ selections for Fiction Uncovered 2013:

Lucy Caldwell, All the Beggars Riding (Faber & Faber)

Lara Moorhouse looks back on her childhood; how her parents met; and the legacy of her father, a plastic surgeon who had another life and family in Belfast and died during the Troubles. Caldwell’s novel strikes me very much as a book about memory, writing, and the difficulties of capturing the past. Just as her father would rebuild faces, so Lara tries to reconstruct a version of the past that rings true for her – and it’s not until the final pages that we discover just how much work Lara has had to undertake.

Anthony Cartwright, How I Killed Margaret Thatcher (Tindal Street Press)

This is the story of Sean Bull, who grows up in a staunch Labour family in Dudley, and is nine years old in 1979 when he sees his grandfather thump Uncle Eric for voting Tory. We then follow Sean as he grows up through the ‘80s, witnessing the decline of the manufacturing community around him, and the effects on his family. He knows that Margaret Thatcher is involved in all this somehow, but as a child he can’t really comprehend what is happening. Cartwright paints an effective portrait of a time and place, and of a character trying to deal with circumstances far beyond his control.

Niven Govinden, Black Bread White Beer (The Friday Project)

Amal and Claud are a thirtysomething couple on their way to her parents’ house in Sussex; what nobody down there knows yet is that Claud has suffered a miscarriage. Black Bread White Beer stands out for me because of the precision with which Govinden depicts the couple’s relationship. It seems that Amal has never quite felt comfortable in the role of Claud’s husband – they come from dissimilar backgrounds (not just that his family is Indian and hers from rural England; the two families also have rather different outlooks and values), and Amal feels in some ways that Claud is simply better than him. There’s a sense that the baby was going to be what would finally cement the pair’s relationship, and now they need to rediscover what brought them together. By novel’s end, they may just be on the way to doing that.

Nikita Lalwani, The Village (Viking)

An Anglo-Indian documentary maker goes to film at an open prison in India, and finds her sense of ethics tested. Previously reviewed by me here.

Nell Leyshon, The Colour of Milk (Fig Tree)

In 1830, a farm girl is sent to work at the local vicarage… and you’ll have to read the rest of this short, intense novel to discover what happens. Previously reviewed by me here.

James Meek, The Heart Broke In (Canongate)

A big, sprawling novel which revolves around three characters: Ritchie Shepherd, a television presenter who’s been sleeping around; his sister Bec, a successful scientist who’s just broken up with a newspaper editor; and Alex Comrie, the drummer in Ritchie’s old band, now a cancer specialist, who embarks on a relationship with Bec. Meek traces the moral issues of these characters’ personal and professional lives, as that spurned newsman threatens to reveal their secrets.

Amy Sackville, Orkney (Granta)

Sackville’s debut, The Still Point, was one of my favourite reads of 2010; this follow-up shares its sharp focus on relationships and nature. Richard, a sixty-year-old literature professor, is on honeymoon in Orkney; his (unnamed) new bride was one of his students, mysterious and beautiful, drawn to the sea even though she can’t swim. Our thoughts may lead naturally to a particular interpretation of who (or what) Richard’s wife is; but Sackville does not permit such a straightforward reading. There’s a tension over how far Richard’s descriptions of his partner are her true nature, and how far they are his projections from within his literary frame of reference; the dynamic of the couple’s relationship then shifts over the course of the novel. Add to this a fine sense of place, and you have a highly intriguing read.

Rupert Thomson, Secrecy (Granta)

In 1691, the artist Gaetano  Zummo (a genuine historical figure, notable for his realistic wax figures) arrives in Florence to undertake a commission for the Grand Duke of Tuscany – to create a life-size statue of Venus. Zummo hears whispers of what may be a plot against him; falls in love with a young woman named Faustina who is not all she seems; and uses as his model for the statue the body of another young woman found in the river, apparently murdered. Thomson presents Florence as a maze of secrets and stories, as it seems almost everyone has a tale to tell and something to hide.

Comparing Book Covers: UK vs US

I’m always fascinated by the differences in book covers between countries. The Millions runs an annual feature comparing US and UK cover art, and a similar post appeared on Flavorwire a few days ago. I’ve decided to do a cover post of my own, with some of the books I’ve featured on this blog.

(UK covers are on the left, US covers on the right; title links go to my reviews of the books, for context.)

Diving Belles – Lucy Wood

 dbuk  dbus

The UK cover indicates folklore and the sea; it’s nice enough, but feels perhaps a little too obvious. The US cover, I think, captures the deeper heart of the book – that mixture of domesticity and sinister magic; I especially love the way that the stairs shade into abstract geometry. Winner: US

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

 bauk  baus

Two broadly similar treatments here, with the red parasol as focus. I think the closed parasol in the case evokes the novel’s themes better. Winner: UK

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry – B.S. Johnson

 cmuk  cmus

The covers of the most recent editions. There’s a simple elegance to both, but for me the disintegrating ledger is a little too literal, especially compared with the boldness of the UK cover. Winner: UK

The Longshot – Katie Kitamura

 lsuk  lsus

I like the composition of both these covers, but the image of the fighter and his trainer walking away makes it look as though their job is done. The clenched fists of the US cover evoke the tension and violence which are at the novel’s core. Winner: US

The Still Point – Amy Sackville

 spuk  spus

Oh, there’s no contest here: the paper cut-out look of the UK cover is gorgeous; the US cover doesn’t come close for me. Winner: UK

Redemption in Indigo – Karen Lord

 riuk  rius

The composition of the US cover is elegant, but I think the UK cover better evokes the tone of the book (tricksy-but-serious) . Winner: UK

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu

 hluk  hlus

Hmm. Yu’s novel plays with the conventions of both sf and mainstream ‘literary fiction’, which is captured nicely by the UK cover, with its ordered arrangement of laser guns. But it’s also a playful novel, and that spirit is evoked by the US cover, made to look like an old manual, complete with ‘creased’ cover obscuring the publicity quotes. I can’t choose one over the other. Winner: it’s a draw.

Communion Town – Sam Thompson

 ctuk  ctus

I’m not sure either of these covers really captures the essence of Thompson’s book, but the UK one wins out for me as being more intriguing and distinctive., turning a map into abstract art. (Incidentally, this is the cover of the UK hardback; the paperback cover, like the US one, goes down the less-interesting ‘murky skyscraper’ route.) Winner: UK

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This – Robin Black

 iluk  ilus

Well, I don’t think the UK cover is very interesting at all. The US cover is not great, but the paint effect is a nice touch, and the title is used well within the composition. Winner: US

The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt

 sbuk  sbus

Wow. What a difference in treatment. I love nigh on everything about the UK cover (it looks even better on the physical object). The US cover is too specific to suit the novel’s air of ambiguity, and just isn’t as well conceived as the more stylised version. Winner: UK

Favourite books of 2010

As the year draws to a close, I’ve been thinking over all the books I’ve read and picking out my favourites. And here they are, my favourite dozen from the year (all published for the first time in 2010, or older books receiving their first UK publication this year) — in alphabetical order of author surname:

Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr Shivers

I didn’t know what to expect when I read this book, and it turned out to be a simply stunning debut. Bennett’s fusion of fantasy, horror and historical fiction is a smart book that uses its fantasy to comment on the period.

Shane Jones, Light Boxes

This tale of a balloon-maker’s war on February is constructed from story-fragments that add up to a marvellously strange whole. It works on about three different levels at once, but resists being pinned down to a single interpretation. A beautiful little jewel of a book.

Simon Lelic, Rupture

A perceptive and well-written novel chronicling the investigation into a school shooting committed by an apparently mild-mannered teacher.

Emily Mackie, And This Is True

A sharp study of a boy who has grown uncomfortably close to his father, and the pressures exerted on him when the life he has known begins to change.

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House

A near-future Istanbul is the setting for this sprawling-yet-elegant tale of six interlocking lives, and the wider structures and systems of which they are a part.

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

A vast boarding-school comedy with added theoretical physics. Murray’s novel has huge ambitions, and achieves them brilliantly. It reads like a book half its length, and its sheer range is astonishing.

Véronique Olmi, Beside the Sea

A very strong launch title for Peirene Press, this is an intense study of a mother taking her two children to the seaside — an apparently ordinary surface that hides much darker depths.

Adam Roberts, New Model Army

This tale of armies run of democratic principles is both a cutting examination of warfare, and a novel that left me with a feeling that I genuinely cannot describe.

Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë

The very powerful story of a girl’s abduction and captivity. Exquisite prose, acute characterisation, and masterfully-controlled narrative flow.

Amy Sackville, The Still Point

Winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and deservedly so. An intense and beautifully written novel of Arctic exploration and the parallels between two couples living a century apart.

Nikesh Shukla, Coconut Unlimited

One of the funniest books I read all year, this tale of three Asian boys at an otherwise all-white public school is also an acute portrait of adolescence and the ways in which people try to build identities for themselves.

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

A novel that ably switches states between time-travel metafiction and examination of its protagonist’s relationship with his father, interrogating and blurring genre boundaries as it goes.

And three great reads from previous years…

Liz Jensen, The Rapture (2009)

The brilliant tale of the mental chess-game between a psychotherapist and her patient who can apparently predict disasters — which proves equally adept at being a thriller in its later stages.

Christopher Priest, The Affirmation (1981)

A man begins to write a fictionalised autobiography… and an account by a version of himself in a different reality vies for space in the same book — which, if either, is ‘real’? Nothing is certain in this novel by the reliably excellent Priest.

Marcel Theroux, Far North (2009)

A beautiful story of survival and endurance set in a near-future Siberia.

Amy Sackville, The Still Point (2010)

‘The still point of the turning world’ (in the words of T.S. Eliot, quoted in this novel’s epigraph) is the North Pole, to where Edward Mackley led a fateful expedition at the turn of the 20th century – his body was not found for another fifty years. In the present day, Julia, a descendant of Mackley’s, lives in the explorer’s old house with her husband Simon, where she tries to find meaning in life even as her marriage slowly loses its spark. By novel’s end, Julia will find herself re-evaluating both her own relationship and what she thought she knew about Mackley and his wife, Emily.

Amy Sackville’s debut has to be one of the most intensely focused novels I’ve read in quite some time. The action in the book’s present takes place over the course of one day (though there also passages set in Edward Mackley’s time, and flashbacks to earlier in Julia’s and Simon’s relationship), and is almost entirely about the relationships of the two couples. Sackville sets up thematic parallels between the two, using the North Pole as a metaphor; the central idea seems to be that the nature of Arctic geography is such that you can never be sure when you’ve actually reached the Pole, just as perhaps you can never truly be sure that you’ve got to the heart of the person you love.

The parallels between the couples are interesting and, in a way, rather challenging. Ostensibly, they’re quite straightforward – both Julia and Emily are free spirits who ended up with a domestic existence while their husbands go out to work, and both have reason to wonder, ‘Is he coming back?’ Think about it more deeply, though, and the comparison starts to seem absurd: there’s a world of difference between trekking to the North Pole and commuting to London for the day, and between waiting decades for news of your husband – who, you’re well aware, might have died – and waiting a few hours to discover whether he’s returning home to you after work, or seeing someone else.

And yet… I think Sackville is challenging us to consider such deeper parallels. It seems clear that Julia sees something of herself in Emily’s situation, and undoubtedly both women have been ‘left behind’, albeit it in different senses. I suppose one could turn the question around and ask what there is of Julia’s situation in Emily’s, which raises the issue of the human consequences of attempting great feats – if someone is left behind at home, does it really make a difference why that was, if they have to deal with the same emotions? The Still Point certainly leaves one with plenty to think about.

Sackville’s prose style is interesting, often addressing the reader directly:

Closer inspection of [the couple’s] eyeelids will reveal that [Julia] is dreaming. Behind the skin you wil just discern, in the violet dimness, the raised circles of her pupils scud and jitter as the eyes roll in their sockets. You would like to know the hidden colour of the irises. Very well, then: hers are brown, his are also brown, but darker. [7]

I wasn’t sure for some time whether I’d get along with it, but now I think it suits the novel well; it gives the sense of eavesdropping on the characters rather than inhabiting them, which seems appropriate for a book about how it’s a struggle fully to get to know people. This style also leads to some striking effects: for example, there’s a scene where Julia and Simon argue, and the clash of their argument with the more poetic writing around it is quite something. Then there are the places where Sackville just writes beautifully, as with many of her descriptions of the Arctic:

Blank, white, vast and silent but for the slish of the summer ice. It is not the heave and roar of the darker months, but a constant drip, the rush of a hundred rivulets. A slick sheen over everything as if coated in glass. There are no shadows here, beneath the Arctic sun. There is no sense of depth, only massive solid forms without contour and, between, the black sea. The sky is almost white. Don’t look up, or let your gaze rest anywhere for too long. The sun is everything; try to keep your eyes half closed, the brightness will blind you. [153]

The Still Point is a book which has stayed with me; perhaps it wasn’t until I’d finished it that I realised just how much I’d been drawn into its world. I’m glad that I was.

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